14 June 2001
Dual mandate U-turn forced by FF backbenchers as well as Independents
Speaking in the Dáil on the Local Government Bill 2001 Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said that the government's U-turn on the dual mandate was forced by the discontent of Fianna Fáil backbenchers as well as by the government-supporting Independents. He said:
``I personally assured the Minister for the Environment and Local Government Noel Dempsey that I would support the ending of the dual mandate. He stated that he had no intention of backing down on this issue. Now the entire Cabinet has backed down. This is a legislative farce.
``It is obvious that this U-turn was forced not only by the four independent TDs who support the government but also by many Fianna Fáil backbenchers whose grumbling against this measure was less audible but no less ominous.''
When drafting my remarks on this Bill last night I was going to say we were debating in the dark with a guillotine hanging over us. Well last night the government turned on the light and what we saw was not a pretty sight. There is nothing elegant about a political U-turn, even one that was this long coming. This was an inadequate Bill to start with but with one of its principal innovations now gone ? the ending of the dual mandate ? it is as forlorn a piece of legislation as was ever placed before the Dáil.
This long-promised Bill was finally published on 4 May 2000. It only came before the Dáil on 8 March this year, was adjourned and is back now over a year since its publication. The fate of the Bill was the subject of widespread rumour and speculation centred on those independent deputies who support the government but who did not support the proposal in the Bill as published to end the dual mandate, disqualifying TDs and Senators from election to local authorities.
It was a long year of negotiations between the government and the deputies in question and, more importantly perhaps, the government's own backbenchers.
I personally assured the Minister for the Environment and Local Government Noel Dempsey that I would support the ending of the dual mandate. He stated that he had no intention of backing down on this issue. Now the entire Cabinet has backed down. This is a legislative farce.
It is obvious that this U-turn was forced not only by the four independent TDs who support the government but also by many Fianna Fáil backbenchers whose grumbling against this measure was less audible but no less ominous.
Having waited so long for the Bill we now find ourselves debating it with a guillotine hanging over us. This is a ridiculous way to conduct the business of the Dáil on any matter, let alone a Bill which deals with local government, an issue that goes to the heart of democracy. Second Stage debate on this very long, varied and detailed Bill has been restricted to less than a week and many deputies have clearly not had the opportunity to speak. Given the long wait for publication of the Bill and the undue delay in bringing it before the House this guillotine is totally unacceptable. As a member of the Select Committee on Environment and Local Government I protest also at similarly restricted time for Committee Stage.
I fully supported the ending of the dual mandate. Membership of a local authority and membership of this Oireachtas are both onerous responsibilities. It is right that elected members should devote their full attention to one elected authority only. The disqualification of TDs and Senators from local authority membership would undoubtedly cause difficulties for political parties and elected representatives. It had implications for the electoral strategies of all parties, including my own. But I believe that ultimately the separation of these roles would serve the people who elect us to serve them and that is the most important consideration of all.
That said, I also believe that without real and fundamental local government reform the abolition of the dual mandate would not fully achieve its objective. Why? Simply because this Bill does not give back any real power to the local authorities. It is the lack of power in the democratic councils of local government in this highly centralised State which contributes greatly to the burden of TDs. We are called upon to deal with the most local of matters as well as national and international affairs. Truly empowered local government with decentralisation of power and a much wider range of functions than at present would be of real service to communities. Councillors would have enhanced responsibilities and the ability to make a difference for communities and individual constituents at local level while parliamentarians could concentrate on their proper role. This could and should be done while retaining the vital links between the TD and local elected representatives. We must now await another day for this separation of powers to be brought about.
This Bill repairs ramshackle legislation and consolidates various Acts. It gives legal recognition to a number of recent developments in local government such as SPCs and it follows on from the constitutional amendment on local government which, very importantly, fixed the terms of office of the councils. To that extent it is welcome. But overall it must be said that it is a disappointment because it is by no means the real empowerment of local government which is needed.
Let it not be forgotten that the local government elections due in 1996 were postponed until 1999 supposedly on the basis that major legislative reform was on the way. As so often with the attitude of central government to local authorities these deferrals were in reality based purely on political expediency. The local elections of 1999 came and went and we had no legislation and no fundamental reform. Regrettably we do not have fundamental reform in this Bill either.
As a local authority member since 1985 I am acutely conscious of the frustration of elected representatives and of those whom we represent at the lack of democratic powers in our councils. The City and County Managers remain some of the most powerful officials in Irish public life and they are of course unelected. We, the elected representatives of the people, both TDs and councillors, have to lobby them on a plethora of issues. This Bill does not detract one iota from the power of the City and County Managers.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill for direct election of Mayors and County Council Cathaoirligh. We have heard murmurs of opposition to this from some quarters and fears have been expressed that those outside the three dominant parties could be elected. That is an eminently sound reason to support the measure. I hope it does not go the way of the proposal to end the dual mandate. Again, it must be said that the enhanced democracy which direct election implies will not and cannot be complete without real empowerment of local government. The electorate will be disappointed if those they elect directly as first citizens of their city or county do not lead councils which have the power to implement real programmes of improvement and reform.
This Bill does not remove the power of the Minister to prorogue an elected authority and replace it with a commission. This is the ultimate dictatorial power which undermines local government. It was used as a threat to Dublin City Council earlier this year when the Council seemed certain to reject refuse charges. This power should be removed from the Minister.
The woefully restricted time for this debate does not allow me to deal with other aspects of the Bill. All in all the saga of the Local Government Bill has been one of the sorriest episodes in the record of this administration. Yet again the task of reforming local government and returning real democratic power to local level has been put off.
In conclusion I must record my amusement at the number of deputies who have lamented the disempowerment of local government and of the Dáil, with power being ceded to unelected Managers and quangos. The same members do not object to the ceding of even greater powers to unelected quangos in Brussels, reducing this Dáil to the level of a local authority. Perhaps last week's referendum result will provide them with a wake-up call but somehow I doubt it.
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